If you’ve forgotten your wallet or it’s simply feeling a little light, don’t panic as you don’t need to be a big spender in order to see all that Melbourne has to offer. And while you will be charged for the city’s world-class coffee, the following 21 activities and attractions are free for you to enjoy.
Heading up St Kilda Road, you will come across a monumental bluestone building on your left. Designed by Sir Roy Grounds, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has a collection of more than 73,000 works of art. Make your way through the arched entrance, behind the wall of water and towards the Great Hall to see the world’s largest stained-glass ceiling, which casts a kaleidoscope of colours onto the gallery floor. Aside from its permanent collection, NGV also holds exhibitions and special events such as the annual Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series.
The State Library of Victoria is unmistakable. From the moment you first set eyes on it, you cannot deny its beauty; yet the outside can’t compare to the beauty contained inside. The domed La Trobe Reading Room is exquisite, with natural light pouring in through the dome skylights. The La Trobe Room does not disappoint in the evening as the soft light provided by artificial means draws you in. There really is no better place to read your favourite book. And you should have no trouble finding it with over two million books contained within the library’s collection; if that does not sate your appetite, then indulge in some of the thousands of newspapers, manuscripts, audio, video and digital material on hand that spans a century of Victoria’s culture and history. The State Library is also home to fabulous artworks and exhibitions with free guided tours available, too.
Mosey through the historic sheds of the Queen Victoria Market and discover fresh produce, hot donuts, souvenirs, homewares and more scattered throughout the market’s many diverse precincts. There’s also the Night Market every Wednesday night between November and April. The marketplace comes alive with live music, delicious food stalls and late-night shopping.
Located inside ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Federation Square, Screen Worlds is a free permanent exhibition that tells the ever-evolving story of the moving image. The interactive exhibition features objects, props and memorabilia. This includes the original clock from Play School(1966–present), Cate Blanchett’s Oscar for her role in The Aviator (2004), and costumes worn by Kylie Minogue, Dame Edna and Heath Ledger.
Melbourne locals love listening to live music. Fortunately, this is one activity you don’t have to miss if you’re strapped for cash. Cherry Bar, in the city’s ACDC Lane, calls itself ‘pretty much the best rock ‘n’ roll bar in the world’. It offers free admission throughout the week (on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Sundays), and often hosts big-name after-parties and rock stars. Another option is The Esplanade in St Kilda, which has free entry most nights and is the place to catch emerging rock acts.
Deborah Halpern is one of Australia’s most celebrated sculptors. She’s know for her colourful mosaic sculptures; three of which are on display in Melbourne. There’s Angel (1987)at Birrarung Marr, Ophelia (1992)at Southgate, and Portal to Another Time and Place (2005)at Werribee Mansion. Other public sculptures to seek out in Melbourne include Bruce Armstrong’s Eagle (2002)and John Kelly’s Cow up a Tree (1999)in Docklands, Simon Perry’s The Public Purse (1994) outside the GPO building, and Petrus Spronk’s sinking building known as Architectural Fragment (1992) outside the State Library of Victoria.
Escape the buzz of Melbourne’s city streets in the tranquil sanctuary that is the Royal Botanic Gardens. Spread across 94 acres, the sprawling gardens contain a collection of 10,000 plants – both native and exotic. With 11 lawns, there’s ample space to relax and unwind. There’s also a 3.8-kilometre (2.4-mile) walking track known as ‘The Tan’ that circles the garden.
A hub for Victorian writers, The Wheeler Centre is focused on celebrating and exploring Australia’s literary scene. Visitors can engage in programmes and listen to guest speakers. Every Thursday at lunchtime, you can catch the free Lunchbox/Soapbox series, which provides a platform for curious minds to share stories and ideas.
Stretching alongside the Yarra River from Princes Bridge to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, the Southbank entertainment precinct includes some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, high-end retailers and Crown Casino. Stroll down the promenade where you’ll find buskers and gaze up at Melbourne’s skyline. At night, marvel at Crown Casino’s Gas Brigades, which send fireballs high into the sky every hour.
Trams are an integral part of Melbourne’s cityscape. The free City Circle Tram allows tourists and Melburnians alike to travel throughout the city, hopping on and off as they wish. The fleet of historical W-class trams travels through La Trobe, Flinders, Spring, Nicholson and Victoria Streets, covering Melbourne’s central business district. There’s audio commentary on board as well; revealing the attractions at each stop, and interesting facts along the way.
Whether you’re searching for a peaceful refuge or seeking to admire architectural feats, Melbourne’s places of worship are worth a look. St Paul’s Cathedral is located in the heart of Melbourne’s central business district. Designed by English architect William Butterfield, the cathedral is built in the neo-Gothic transitional style. Nearby is the medieval-looking St Patrick’s Cathedral. You’ll also find St Mary Star of the Sea Church and St Michael’s Uniting Church. These holy houses are impressive to look at and spiritual to visit.
Learn more about Indigenous culture at the Koorie Heritage Trust
Art Gallery, Museum
Located at Federation Square, the Koorie Heritage Trust is an authentic and immersive Aboriginal centre. It seeks to educate visitors on Indigenous culture through its exhibitions. Showcasing the work of contemporary Indigenous artists, the Koorie Heritage Trust is free to visit and is open seven days a week.
Located six kilometres (3.7 miles) southeast of Melbourne, St Kilda is an idyllic seaside escape only minutes from the city. Stroll down the shoreline to St Kilda Pier for some penguin spotting and breathtaking skyline views. The bustling nearby Acland Street is a great place to grab a bite, and on Sundays there’s a beachfront market too. You can also walk around Luna Park for free but, of course, the activities cost extra.
The best views of the city are found at a height, making rooftop bars the best spots to soak in a sunset and watch as the lights switch on across Melbourne’s cityscape. Siglo offers views of St Patrick’s Cathedral and Parliament House, as well as a range of sophisticated drinks. With other options like Madame Brussels and Naked in the Sky, you’ll be more than happy to treat yourself to a drink or two when the bar comes with a view.
The labyrinth of laneways that snake themselves around Melbourne have become some of the most sought-after real estate for artists looking for urban canvases. Splashed in bright colours, the magnificent murals of Duckboard Place, as well as Hosier, Union and ACDC Lanes are open to artistic expression and make for Instagram-worthy backdrops.
Only 25 minutes from Melbourne, the RAAF Museum details the story of Australian aviation and is completely free to visit. Tour the hangars and see the permanent exhibitions and displays. The interactive Flying Displays are where you can witness heritage aircraft take flight every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
Built to honour Victorians who served during World War I, the Shrine of Remembrance now stands as a memorial to all Australians who have served in all wars. Visitors are welcome to explore the memorial at their own pace or join a guided tour. The memorial consists of many rooms and exhibition spaces, which contain over 800 objects, photos and uniforms from the 1850s to the present day.
Take a walk and see Melbourne’s architectural gems
Throughout Melbourne, you’ll find a juxtaposition of modern, Victorian and art deco architecture, with daring designers constantly pushing boundaries and expanding the cityscape. Walking around Melbourne, you need only to look up and gaze at buildings and structures, including Eureka Tower, Federation Square, the Manchester Unity Building and the Melbourne Theatre Company. Fed Square was completed in 2002 and incorporates both a deconstructive design and a modern minimalist style.
See Victorian decision makers at work at the Parliament House, which is open on both sitting and non-sitting days. The public can also view the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly from the public galleries or go along on a free public tour. These are scheduled for when parliament is not sitting.
Scout the filming locations of your favourite TV shows
Many of Australia’s most iconic television shows have been filmed in Melbourne, including Neighbours (1985–present), Offspring (2010–present),and Kath & Kim (2002–2007). For Neighbours fans, all outside shots of Ramsay Street are filmed in Pin Oak Court, Vermont South. The non-free option is to do the Official Neighbours Tour, where you get to meet a Neighbours star (past or present). Filming for Kath & Kim took place at 4 Lagoon Place, Patterson Lakes. Offspring fans should visit Brunswick Street to see Dr Noonan’s surgery exterior and Emma Street in Collingwood to see the Proudman home.